At his introductory press conference, new Seattle Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto said that, in order to succeed, the Mariners needed to, "pitch, they need to catch it and they need to be athletic." Those thoughts were echoed this week by new manager Scott Servais, too. That athletic part is something that was one of the key points of frustration of many with the teams that Dipoto's predecessor, Jack Zduriencik, ran out on the field for Seattle. It seemed that Jack fell in love with the one particular type of player -- a right-handed power hitter -- that his two most successful teams most clearly lacked, and he wasn't going to leave any stone unturned in trying to find that piece. While he finally succeeded in adding that player in Nelson Cruz, some of the other moves that were made in trying to add that asset took away from the athleticism that was present in his first season in charge of roster construction for the club, and the Mariners became a plodding, station-to-station-type of club.
Dipoto's vision is clearly focusing on getting that athleticism back, but where will Seattle add those players? We saw some of it on display at the big league level late this year in shortstop Ketel Marte. But one athlete doesn't make a team athletic. So SeattleClubhouse took inventory of the M's organization, and vetted some "true prospect"-type of players to bring our readers this list of where the best athlete prospects are in the system.
ALREADY TASTED THE BIG LEAGUES
There are five names, including Marte, that qualify as athletes along the lines of what it seems Dipoto would like to see more of that have already logged significant time on the big league roster for the Mariners. They are:
- James Jones - OF
Jones has seen extensive time in the majors for Seattle the last two seasons and has stolen 28 of the 30 bases he's attempted, making him the Mariners' leader in terms of volume and in terms of percentage. If he can make a little more contact and manage to get his extra base hit rate up closer to his pre-2014 MiLB numbers, Jones could definitely be a factor on the M's roster.
- Ketel Marte - SS
As the roster currently exists, Marte figures to be the best bet to open the 2016 season as Seattle's leadoff hitter -- something he did in all 54 of his starts this year, the most on the team. But Marte isn't just one of the faster players on the team, he also has very good body control and flexibility; traits that are crucial for surviving in the middle infield in the big leagues.
- Brad Miller - SS/OF
Although Miller fell out of favor as the club's shortstop with McClendon, much of that was due to Marte's presence and promise. And the fact that the club ran Brad out in CF with almost no experience speaks to the value they see in his bat. He may not have a spot as a starter going forward at either SS or CF, but "Crazy Legs" has the speed and athleticism that could play well in a utility role.
- Shawn O'Malley - Utility
While the patience and clutch hitting that O'Malley showed in September is what turned many people into backers of his, his quickness, defensive flexibility and athleticism are what got him into baseball as a 5th round pick in the first place. If Miller ends up being dealt to maximize value, O'Malley and Taylor figure to be in a battle for the utility role, and O'Malley's ability to switch-hit figure to be a big checkmark in his favor.
- Chris Taylor - SS
Taylor was the less publicized of the two names (along with Mike Zunino) that Seattle sent to Arizona late in the year to rebuild his swing. His high-contact/gap-to-gap game in the minor leagues that has taken advantage of Taylor's speed hasn't materialized yet in MLB, but if the tweaks made stick, Taylor is one of the faster players and better defenders up the middle in the system.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
The next group of players are guys in the upper levels of the minor leagues, seemingly near that time where they could be big league considerations. Those three are:
- Ramon Flores - OF
Acquired from New York in the Dustin Ackley deal, Flores was tearing up PCL pitching before he suffered a compund fracture of his ankle in a soggy outfield in Tacoma. While Flores doesn't really have the speed, range or arm to stick in center or be a huge threat on the bases or the current power to hold down a starting corner outfield spot, he is athletic in the sense of his movements and actions. He may not be ready when spring opens and is out of options, but there is still a shot that the club could look to hold onto him for a big league spot because of his ability to work counts and command the strike zone.
- Leon Landry - OF
Landry rebounded from a down year in 2014 with a strong showing in Double-A and Triple-A around injuries, stealing 15 bases and picking up 15 extra base hits while seeing his BB rate double. Landry has played all three outfield spots and has the raw speed for center and a solid enough arm for right, but he doesn't always work with the best routes and his arm has been erratic at times. He's stolen 130 bases in six minor league seasons and has shown the ability to drive the ball with his line drive stroke some, but even though he'll play 2016 at age 26, he's still more tools than polish.
- Tyler Smith - SS
Smith's athleticism shows up more often because he is such a heady ballplayer and good baserunner, but while he isn't the fastest runner in the system, he does have athletic tools that should enable him to stick at shortstop for the time being still. He had jumped up over some older, more highly-rated middle infielders in the system when last year started, and it was Smith's presence that led the club to being comfortable with trading away Jack Reinheimer.
STILL A FEW YEARS AWAY
This third group of players don't figure into the 2016 plans in Seattle, but they have shown that they have the skillset and ability to be ready for possible roles perhaps as soon as the following year. These eight players are:
- Rayder Ascanio - SS
Ascanio may currently be the best defensive shortstop in the system checking all of the boxes with fantastic hands, plus range and a good arm to go along with very good instincts and footwork. Add in the ability to switch hit -- although to what extent is yet to be seen for the slightly-built 19 year old -- and you can see why Ascanio is a hot name in the organization. He played up to High-A this past season and didn't hit much, but his glove could be special enough to push him along.
- Braden Bishop - OF
Bishop earned a reputation in college for his defense in center, and that certainly carried over to his debut with the AquaSox. The reason why he lands on this list now, though, is because he showed enough offensively that his overall profile has risen considerably now. Getting on base, making contact and letting his plus speed play on the bases as well as it does in the outfield was a huge plus this past season, and the defense was still very good. He handled Everett's sometimes tricky angles very well and not only tracked everything down hit his way, but also showed a solid, smart throwing arm.
- Austin Cousino - OF
Cousino missed about half of the 2015 season due to injury, but he has shown to be a very good defender in center field -- with plus range and great instincts -- when he's been healthy. He hasn't shown an approach at the plate that allows him to take advantage of his best asset, speed, to date, but Cousino has enough defensive chops that even moderate success at the plate could lead to a 4th outfield spot in the big leagues in time.
- Drew Jackson - SS
It's only been a few month's worth of Short Season ball, but Jackson already has shown the most offensive promise of anyone on this list. He was an easy choice as the Northwest League MVP after flirting with .400 for most of the season while ending the year with a league best and crazy high 47 steals in 51 attempts. That came after the Stanford product stole just 13 bases in his college career. Jackson also has perhaps the best infield arm in the system. The 22 year old will see full-season ball in 2016 and could jump up multiple levels if his offense continues to shine.
- Luis Liberato - OF
Liberato handled all three outfield positions well in 2015, and the wiry left-handed hitter and thrower has a strong arm and home run power on top of his plus speed. He figures to add more weight and probably lose some of that speed as he continues to fill out, but the athleticism and energy that he plays with should survive that natural growth, and his offensive potential make him one to watch.
- Timmy Lopes - 2B
Lopes doesn't flash the elite quickness of quick-twitch reflexes that some of these players do, and although he stole 35 bases this season he also led the organization by being caught 18 times. But like Tyler Smith a level up, Lopes is a very intelligent player and baserunner that flashes enough athleticism to help him get the most out of his skillset.
- Erick Mejia - IF
Mejia and Ascanio were both really talked up to me by the PD department prior to the season in terms of their defense and future, and while Ascanio advanced higher despite being 16 months younger thanks to being a little smoother and a little quicker on defense, Mejia is by no means a slouch defensively. Mejia also has a little more promise as an impact on offense, too, as he was successful on all 18 steal attempts with Everett and walked more than 10% of his PAs.
- Logan Taylor - Utility
Taylor -- who was Texas A&M's starting shortstop as a sophomore and starting left fielder as a junior -- started at four positions for the AquaSox in 2015 in his first year as a pro, showing a lot of versatility with 14-plus starts at second base, third base and in right field. Taylor stole 10 bases and picked up 17 extra base hits in his first season, but he cooled considerably after a fast start, possibly due to being tired. He'll get his first full-season look in 2016 and his bat, versatiliy, speed and athleticism could make him a player that plays at a number of levels in the coming year.
LOTS OF PROMISE, BUT A LONG WAYS AWAY
This final group of five players have yet to play in affiliated ball in the United States for the Mariners, but scouts and the M's player development staff are very high on their possibilities. They are:
- Greifer Andrade - SS
Andrade (pronounced ahn-DRAH-day) showcased for teams in Venezuela as an outfielder prior to signing with the Mariners, but he has played strictly on the infield as a pro to date. He doesn't have blazing speed, but he can run a little, is wiry strong with some quick actions in his hands, and it certainly doesn't hurt that he can handle the bat with some projected power.
- Ricky Eusebio - OF
A standout defender that had good plate discipline but underwhelming offensive numbers in college, Eusebio produced about that same thing in his debut in the AZL during his first pro year. But 12 steals in 14 attempts, strong plate discipline, roughly league average OPS and plus defense in center field thanks to speed and the ability and willingness to go horizontal to make a play definitely lands him on this list.
- Brayan Hernandez - OF
Hernandez is one of the higher ranking prospects on this entire list by most experts, but he is also quite far away from a big league job. He put up a .623 OPS as a 17 year old this year in the Dominican, playing center field well with just 175 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame. That frame, which includes broad shoulders, looks like it can hold a lot more weight than that, and once those pounds start to add on, Hernandez's combination of tools could see him climbing up the organizational ladder quickly.
- Anthony Jimenez - OF
Jimenez, Eusebio, Cousino and Bishop are the four players in the organization that are legitimate "true center fielder"-types defensively in the eyes of some on the PD staff. He can really run, having stolen 53 bases in his two seasons at the academies and he has started exclusively in center in all of those games. Although he's slightly built, he's shown enough of a bat (foreign Rookie League caveat alert) that he is definitely one to look at as a potentially legitimate prospect at this point.
- Chris Torres - SS
Torres had a lot of drama and some big dollars surrounding him prior to agreeing to a reported $375k deal with the Mariners in August of 2014. The defensive tools are what had the big dollars attached to him in the first place, and Torres -- now fully recovered from the arm weakness that he experienced -- showed those defensive tools off for the M's in his debut season while also stealing 20 bases. The 17 year old switch-hitter has a long ways to go and he's by no means a sure thing or a finished product, but he is an intriguing prospect.
That is it. 21 position players out of the roughly 130 in the system this year. And only eight within realistic distance of affecting the MLB club in any capacity in the coming season. And probably only two of those -- Marte and Miller -- looking like they are capable of full-time roles in the big leagues. So what will Seattle and Dipoto do? The most likely scenario is that Dipoto attempts to trade for some more athleticism at the big league level by using some other pieces -- perhaps Mark Trumbo, who he has traded before, as an example -- that he doesn't see as particularly good fits.
But keep these players' names in mind going forward, because they figure to be among the group that Dipoto, McKay and crew are most attentive to developing in 2016 and beyond.
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